Movie Review: Mao Mao Cool by Zhang Yang

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A film about Dali focused on understanding the educational world of today’s childhood.

Zhang Yang’s documentary film follows Qu Hongrui, guided by his tutor Xu Song during his final exam at the “Mao Mao Cool Primary School” in Dali, Yunnan province.

Related article: Interview with Zhang Yang

All the children filmed by the director move through the streets of the city of Dali and in a fraction of the countryside participating in a series of specially designed tasks aimed at training their cognitive, reasoning, and emotional control skills. The film documents a new way of testing children in Yunnan Province through the interaction between Qu Hongrui, his classmates, teachers, and observers, as well as Dali’s locals and people from other parts of the world who have chosen Dali as their home.

In the beginning, we see the little boy completing a series of tasks in the ancient city, along some old streets. The tests involve situations that put the child in front of small problems, such as the fear that occurs during a climbing wall, or the ability to handle daily chores, such as going to the market and shopping. As the day progresses, the tests become more engaging, such as coordinating collaboration in teamwork, when the children have to create new colors of juices, obtained with vegetables previously bought at the market.

In this circumstance, Hongrui’s anger and frustration lead him to make unwise decisions. The child runs to the examiner complaining and saying that he wants to leave the group because the girls don’t listen to him. He is informed that leaving means he will not be able to get the badge to pass on to the next test and this implies that he would lose his lunch and causing his group to fail. A constant starts: whenever Hongrui encounters a problem, he tries to run to the adults to solve it, but examiners cannot get involved.

At the different sites presided over by the scrutineers, who provide details and instructions on the tasks to be performed and evaluate the results to determine passage to the next tests, the child is confronted with his inclination to throw tantrums and sulk. For this reason, on various occasions, his tutor tries to explain to him that he needs to learn to negotiate with others on his own, and not try to get help from adults. The tutor watches over his assigned child, gives advice, helps him in case an unexpected situation arises, makes sure that he never gets into a dangerous situation, or causes problems to others. He acts as an exhorter, motivator coach, helps him to understand and reflect and when necessary also invites him to blow off steam, stop feeling frustrated, after all, he is a child who should have fun, but it seems he doesn’t always be able to. Xu Song on the whole provides emotional and moral support, never acting in Qu Hongrui’s place, but above all acting as a conscience.

To access the next level he must also individually simulate passing through customs and having his “passport” stamped, then the language test comes into play where he must demonstrate understanding and learning by exposing his tastes and asking for directions in English. Although in this test, the child is self-confident in more than one situation and activity, Qu is impulsive, stubborn, and brash. He bursts into tears and his classmates, especially the girls seem much more determined, mature if compared to him. Crying and screaming is a kind of repeating pattern. Qu complains about feeling dominated by the team. One little girl asks him, “Why does he like to cry so much?” Hongrui feels no shame in being so emotional and showing himself to be childish.

The director has embarked on a path of episodic and observational aesthetic documentary filmmaking about Dali, appears in a small cameo, when the child is on his lunch break.

The purpose of the test is to learn how to manage one’s feelings. The child is forced to act independently, he is indirectly taught how to interact and cooperate with others most properly. Hongrui cannot simply insist on having his own way. The exam, teaches time management, teamwork, negotiation, patience, control of one’s emotions in general, and perseverance, not only in the classroom but in the real world.

Teachers don’t interpose, they guarantee that he learns to overcome a series of social interactions based on cooperation and bargaining. Hongrui learns harmonious socialization that compromises to peacefully resolve differences and succeed in working as a team. At the beginning of the exam, Qu seems just a spoiled only child, but as the day proceeds, the tension decreases: he gets relaxed. In the early scenes, he cried and complained, towards the end, he learned to move on and overcome his fears, difficulties and take things for what they are.

A very lovely moment is when Qu is tested for music. He has to guess a musical instrument, without seeing it. Once he has passed the test, he is allowed to choose an instrument to take away with him. On this occasion we see him make the simplest and most genuine choice, which underlines his spirit as a cheerful and carefree child.

The film concludes with Qu Hongrui and Xu Song walking to the campsite near the lake, whereas in the final test they will have to pitch a tent, in which they will spend the concluding night of the exam. The two walk quietly and playfully in the natural environment of the beautiful countryside surrounding the city, conversing and imitating the sounds of animals. They look like two children or two longtime friends. The ritual of the passage of the exam has certainly obtained the results it was hoping for, but clearly, the sense of recreation is also due to the relaxing power of Dali’s countryside, which has cathartic and therapeutic capacities, thanks to its fascinating and soothing nature.

The documentary film was selected at DMZ Docs 2019, Korea

The film also shows the spontaneity, directness, and overwhelming sincerity of children. These positive feelings, if not carefully managed, can compromise peaceful coexistence and growth, so it becomes necessary to understand these emotions in order to coordinate them productively. It also highlights how children, in general, can feel fine in the learning stage while learning to live in the world, overcoming their limitations and problems while having fun along the way. The main character needs to learn to master his emotions as he grows up, but thanks to responsible adult understanding he calms down to happily make his way to the finish line.

This newest documentary by Zhang is part of his trilogy on Dali consisting of “Up the Mountain” and “The Sound of Dali“. This work also offers an answer for those who, after watching “The Sound of Dali” may have wondered how so many different cultures and realities can coexist in harmony in the area. One of the answers, in addition to the mild and welcoming local tradition of the Bai people, is the commitment to the education of children, the men and women of tomorrow.

Mao Mao Cool offers a micro view of Dali’s increasingly multi-ethnic contemporary Chinese society through the trials and tribulations of a school-aged child.

Those familiar with Zhang’s filmography are probably not surprised by his increasingly active involvement in documentary film production. The director remaining loyal to his creative communicative vision, starting in 2015 with “Paths of the Soul”, has shifted to exponentially directing and producing documentary films. But since the time of 2001’s Quitting film, where the spotlight was turned on the tormented life of actor Jia Hongsheng, Zhang Yang has shown a willingness to find a dimension where film and documentary coexist. All the cast members of Quitting played themselves. Also in “Mao Mao Cool”, all the cast members played themselves. Zhang is a master and excels in the docu-fiction genre.

The visual approach of this work also presents a specific and peculiar feature, which makes the documentary even more immersive. The director follows Qu and his tutor throughout the examination, but often the viewer is placed in the observation from the point of view of the main protagonist, Qu Hongrui, the elementary school child. The film consists entirely of handheld camera work, with the camera at Qu’s level. The record then gives us his perspective and that of his examined classmates. We look at the change in educational methods, in a system that is criticized for excessive reliance on rote learning and test scores, therefore offers multiple perspectives on change, that is, how the children, the main character see and deal with change. Zhang silently documents Qu’s atypical annual exam; we don’t hear him, nor does he wish to impose his direction. His presence doesn’t interfere with what is being documented, he simply records without comment or judgment. The documentary is also a gentle exploration into the art of growing up, putting the importance of education in the spotlight, and the choice of a style of education that prioritizes the teaching of skills, but at the same time focuses on how interpersonal connections can help in building those skills.


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